Where little situations come from

Sean Hillman and I discuss some confusing things about situations in play, specifically, what does preparation have to do with them. Seems easy, right? You prep it, then the group plays it – hey, the real (digital, video) games do it all the time, so we should just do that, right?

So much for rhetorical sarcasm. I hope we say things that make some sense, and I would love to see comments – the conversation contains several doors swung wide open that we didn’t have time to get through.


15 responses to “Where little situations come from”

  1. Thanks, this was fantastic.

    Just wanted to chime in and say I immensely appreciated the discussion. It's a subject I consider incredibly important – in fact, I think it's the single most important and possibly controversial discussion going on right now regarding how games should be run (and thus designed). 
    Ron's words perfectly describe how I feel about the issue; I'll just say that this entire problem is one of the reasons I was "thunderstruck" with Circle of Hands, even before play. It's incredibly rare to see a game that tells you "this is how you run prep" – what we tend to see is "You prep, somehow, figure it out – but why don't you buy this commercial product we're selling that already did that process instead?" or "Prep is bad, and terrible, and in order to have any form of agency and sincerity at the table you must never prepare anything ahead of play".

    I often hear people say "if the DM preps, you're by necessity prepping plot too*". Yet we see that players can efficiently interact with prepped situations without having any pre-programmed behaviour; who's to say the GM can't run his NPC precisely in the same way (reactive, not proactive, in a way)?


    • I have found that the most

      I have found that the most practical starting concept for play or design talk is Authorities, especially Situation vs. Outcome. Even just getting someone to pull the two apart in their minds is a huge cognitive leap in many cases.

    • One thing I do not think I

      One thing I do not think I mentioned, and this tacks back to the origins of my thinking on this, is the idea of unexpected elements for the GM. One might see an Ur version of this as the random encounter tables, stuff you did not prep for. Although over time it became somewhat expected. But some random elements to surprise the GM give them something to react to.

    • If I can, I’ve never seen

      If I can, I've never seen those hard and fast randomizations as elements that actually provided the kind of GM-oriented mechanism I'm looking for when I think about situations as discussed here. They often act as way to integrate something that is already going on ("we need a random encounter, here") and thus as speedbumps, or for throwing a wrench in the GM's plans, forcing him to make new plans. 

      Basically meeting that wyvern while on the way for the wizard's tower doesn't change the fact that your main goal remains reaching the tower. Or if this random event replaces the original event, you're simply taking a left on the road. In either case, these act as interruptions, and have no foundation in previous events.

      This is why I like (sorry, CoH again) techniques like tripwires and the Charm roll – they build on what you did during preparation, but can't be forced during play. The key here is not having randomness for the sake of randomness, but letting that situation people start in evolve on its own, with no expectations or programmed outcomes, but with internal consistency.

      I've mentioned this in my consulting session for the game I'm writing: what I'm trying to devise is techniques that build on situations (and prep) in a way that makes play equally "surprising" to all players once it starts. My ideal model would be having a situation such as "Ichabod Crane reaches Sleepy Hollow; much treachery is at work between this cast if characters, and the Headless Horseman is lurking in the shadows. What happens from the moment he reaches town is a surprise to everybody". Prep is there, it's constantly invoked, but outcomes are uncertain. Maybe Ichabod will never meet the Horseman. Maybe he will not uncover any of the mysteries. My impression is that techniques such as those present in CoH do this; random tables pulled out at fixed intervals do not, and in my humble opinion games that tell you "prep nothing, but run these 4 pre-programmed scenes in sequence, aiming toward this outcome the players have elected for themselves" don't either.

    • I’m much more interested in

      I'm much more interested in your (Sean and Lorenzo) mutual dialogue than in my own possible contribution, but I will toss Trollbabe in at this point as my main attempt to show & teach the effects that Lorenzo is talking about. Conversely, I can think of a few table-based processes for outcomes during play that I like a lot, but will hold off, perhaps for a Seminar event some time.

    • I definitely see the point.

      I definitely see the point. As I mentioned they are an Ur example, whether intended that way or not, and I think through play random encounters become food for expanding the canvas of play as player curiosity leads them places. Although it may have become something of a joke in terms of The Side Quest(TM), plenty of adventures sprung out of those random encounters. My own rule of thumb, using the more traditional RPGs, is that if a character creates some interest out of their own info dump or just some wild idea, I will go with it or let the dice decide if something is real.  Maybe the wyvern has a nest nearby. Maybe something interesting to the players is in the nest. Especially if they propose what the thing could be.

      But I think there are two discussions here and your CoH examples are good ones. The first is Situation and System the other Situation and GM Preferences. What I prefer may not be supported by the mechanics and do I stick with the system's interpretation or do I go off script?


    • Just to avoid confusion, I’m

      Just to avoid confusion, I'm not opposed to randomness. In fact, I think randomness can be instrumental to making play better, expecially when it becomes a replacement for what would normally be an autonomous decision by one of the players. This goes from not being able to say "I win" (roll the dice first) to more nuanced mechanics – for example, I love how the Charm roll overtakes GM fiat in determining NPC reactions. You can't pre-build a character as an antagonist – and that's fun, because you're forced to make that happen at the table. If I recall correctly, the step-by-step example in Circle of Hands is a situation where there's a small dragon-like creature and a band of mercenaries exploiting it. The head of the mercenaries is a named NPC. Now, that character could be the main villain or the main ally of the players – and that's going to have to happen during play, it can't be pre-programmed or foreseen. And – this is SO rare in games – it's fun for the GM too. Randomness allows the GM to play the game, which is very different from controlling the game (which is what absolute power does).

      I tend not to like lists because my experience is that they very rarely manage to be consistent with what is happening – and consistency is central to what I was discussing above, because the mercenary chief exists before play begins, he has interests, characteristics, numbers to use in combat. I'm not making him up on the spot, which very often leads to things being introduced just to blend in and allow things to proceed just like we wanted them to. So if the dice tells me he likes the players or he's persuaded by their argument, I have to make that work with what we know about him, and his agenda, and his situation. These limitations make things interesting, to me, because I can't just make up things that are either completely divorced from the current situation or create them just by having them adapt to the situation. I have to play with things, think, and create further contest to make the story work. 

      And I've foundt over the years that this leads to play off people (players) because you need to use what players do to fill the voids and to create that contest. It's very different from an approach where you already know the guy is going to oppose the players no matter what; it's like if the game returned in secrecy that question ("What do you do?") that you hammer players with. What do I (in the role of this NPC) do, now? And that's fun.

    • One thing I will often do is

      One thing I will often do is make some random tables that are consistent with the rest of prep. With generic tables, even ones you made yourself, there is indeed a disagreeable lack of connection with the rest of prep and play. Custom tables for a session have been my solution to that problem. 

  2. Samurai Androids

    I finished writing (it is not posted) a review for a minimalist rpg called Samurai Androids. Task resolution is called Situations. The context I think is "when you find yourself in a situation, make a skill check…" though I am not sure. I may inquire with the game's author and see what they say. Just thought I would bring this up as an interesting anecdote to the conversation. 

    • (finally getting to reply!)

      (finally getting to reply!)

      It may seem cruel to focus on one single minimalist RPG of the moment, so to be really clear, this is a very common thing to see. I don't think any author would have a better answer than "isn't that how you say it?" based on their constant exposure, experienced as standard and legitimate.

      So, obviously and as I'm sure you're bringing forward intentionally, this is pure tautology. You know it's time to use the task resolution because you're in a situation, and you know you're in a situation because now it's time to use task resolution.

      To a person or group who has no problem with the medium itself, this is a non-problem. Imagine: a group whose player and non-player characters are easily understood to be in a particular place doing whatever they're doing, at any time throughout play; whose speech and actions are integrated into the fiction without any negotiation or difficulty; in which events may occur "toward" or "upon" them as easily and understandably as events which proceed directly out of their speech and actions; in which no one has any doubt or difficulty understanding when you "pick up the dice" based on what's been happening in the past few minutes.

      Again, to this group, the very concept of difficulty with "situation," "scene," "setting," or "system" is nonsense, and Sean, your comment here would be considered carping or snarking, basically, picking on the game and its author. Because their experience of play contains no tautology, they see none in the text, and therefore to criticize the text seems

      This is not a hypothetical group or point. I'm talking about my reaction, because (as you can see in the RuneQuest game and many others), this is what my experience of play typically looks like. When it doesn't, I call it messed-up and broken, and demand an intervention, as some folks currently playing another game with me know.

      Stay with me. My reaction is not fair. Consider this analogy:

      • Person 1 is reviewing a book about cooking pasta. He says, "This book has some trouble: the way it describes things, you can't tell if you're making pasta or washing clothes. See, this phrasing right here, you could go round and round trying to figure out whether you're going to put soap in or not."
      • Person 2 is already quite good – I say modestly, notably good – at making pasta. He says, "That's ridiculous, no one would do that, we all know what it means regardless of the precise logic of the phrasing, so cut him some slack."

      I'm person 2. I'd love to maintain my "no one would do that, phrasing here and there isn't a big deal, don't overthink it, formalizing it would only screw things up." But, again and again (right now in fact!) I see people pouring clothes detergent into their pasta water, and getting puzzled and upset when the pasta doesn't turn out right, in fact, the result is quite horrible, an obvious failure, it cannot even be retconned as "fun" in memory.

      I want to ask you the following, in your capacity as reviewer. What is a role-playing text for?

      • To present how to play the particulars of this game, for people who already know the basics for such games in general? (Think of this as a user's manual for a specific make of car)
      • To teach how to do the general activity to a new/naive audience, including the particulars of this one you're holding? (Think of this as a beginner's driving education text, perhaps with lab or practice activities in a pedagogical order)
      • To explain the inner workings of this particular game so that its intended outcomes and experiences are fully laid out for analysis and comparison? (Think of this as an auto mechanic's encyclopedia or working reference text)
      • To encourage reflection and self-correction concerning common errors of practice and concept, for people who are familiar with the activity but often do it badly and have little fun? (Think of this, if such a thing can be imagined, as a self-help book with legitimate points and practices.)

      I'm sure you can see that no single text can be all of these things. How do you think this point relates to the job or intentions or social functions of a game review?

  3. Liable to change

    I had reason to rewatch this video a couple of days ago and I immediately started to divide the things I’d prepared before our last session into the three levels of solidity (of GM-prepped things) mentioned in the video:

    • Fixed things (solid, nailed down things)
    • Sketchy things
    • Labile things (totally open and undefined things, to be defined in the future). 

    Some of the labile and sketchy things really shouldn’t have been under those categories in our game, which is what I felt during the session (made me rewatch the video). 

    Before the last session, I hoped that the undefined things weren’t a problem yet and that they could be nailed down when we came to it (some backstory, undefined allegiances, in this case, one of my notes was “Is Sethla against Lyssa of the Crows, or with her?”). I mean it should be cool because I wouldn’t change things up in front of the players to make the story interesting no matter what, right

    But it became a problem, and I learned that the all-important guiding pole star (the guiding principle to not take it upon me to make it “fun”, etc.) sometimes is lost in the fog. The game was Blades in the Dark.

    Situations creation. An important topic, for sure! (and a great video!)

    • I have read Blades but never

      I have read Blades but never run or played it. Could you talk a bit about what situation and prep that you do for the game? Glad you liked the video!

    • I think I have failed in my

      I think I have failed in my prep, but I will try to put a comment or post together. My only experience with the game is in this one long game/campaign, first as a player and now recently as a GM. I have tried to write about our game before. It took forever and it became too long and convoluted. Now I have a direct question to focus on, so I hope it makes it easier.

    • Well, my situation prep maybe

      Well, my situation prep maybe isn’t that enlightening if you’re interested in Blades in the dark-specific prep. For those that don’t know, there are situation-building features in the system: a loosely defined “faction turn” that the GM should do, and Entanglement rolls. But entanglement rolls don’t work if you are in prison, so I was more or less on my own. The previous GM had done some faction turns before, ticking progress clocks for the various factions’ goals. One of those clocks informed my prep. Told me that the crew’s old enemies, the Billhooks, hadn’t managed to gain a foothold in prison since the crew put them there. So the Billhooks were few, but desperate and vengeful, according to my prep.

      As I’ve alluded to, I took over as GM when our crew of scoundrels, the Nightcrawlers, was about to be incarcerated in Ironhook prison. That meant that I had to introduce a new situation with new NPCs on the inside. Fun! Some of us, me included, were frustrated with the system but we still wanted to see if it had redeeming features.

      In my preparation, I wanted to create a highly dynamic situation packed with the stuff I like about the setting. I wanted the game to feel less episodic and more personal, in your face, with some problems following with the crew to the inside. I wanted every NPC to have an agenda and take action towards it.

      The things I prepared for the first and second session was at the same time too much and, in some parts, too vague and undefined (sketchy and labile). The PCs found themselves in separate cells, sharing their cells with different persons. Their cellmates had agendas that pointed them at each other’s throats to varying degrees, and all of them were either demanding help or very willing to be helped (by the PCs). Oh, "at each others throats" was maybe too strong, in most cases, but they had incompatible agendas. The vengeful Billhooks weren't a direct part of this, but they were an active problem (the players knew they would be a problem).

    • When situation preparation

      When situation preparation runs counter to the game system's intentions.

      Oh, I mentioned that some of the PCs problems followed them into the prison too. In the first session, one of the events or bangs was that a PC who was possesed by a ghost (long story but he was willingly posessed, taken as a Trauma in rules terms: he liked her, she liked him, she's now within him) met the ghost's murderer the first day in the prison. Another was that the Crew's chef Lilly, now without her job at their bar, had involved herself with the city's escalating riots when the crew got incarcerated. She showed up in prison in the last session with a big gang of angry, imprisoned Skovlanders. 

      But one of the problems with my situation prep is that it hasn't "started" a Score/heist in four sessions, so we have begun to change or re-interpret the rules to be able to take downtime actions without ending a Score. It's less episodic play now (which is a good thing), but why are we playing Blades in the dark?

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